A quiet intensity accentuated McQueen's cool

Steve McQueen: The Power of Style


The blogosphere is awash with paens to Steve McQueen as an icon of cool. Why is Steve McQueen such an important figurehead for (mostly) blokes who like cars and motorbikes. It can’t be just about how good he looked, can it?

He had a hard life. You’ve probably heard all about it before. The absent father. The Alcoholic mother.  He suffered struggles in education and run-ins with violent street gangs. He spent his youth hanging out with a coterie of whores, oilmen, lumberjacks and circus performers before landing himself a gig in the Korean-war era US Marine Corps. In a prescient echo of his performance in The Great Escape, he spent time in the brig for going AWOL, before stepping up to the plate and embracing the life of a military man and eventually distinguishing himself.

The 20 year old McQueen was honourably discharged from the  Marine Corps in 1950 and straight away began to study acting in New York. At the weekends he would race motorbikes – and according to various sources he was so successful that he was able to live off the prize money to fund his drama training.

It wasn’t until 1957, however, that landed his big break playing a tough, taciturn bounty hunter in a network series called Wanted: Dead or Alive. He went on to make his name for  brilliantly studied performances – often playing marginal mavericks who managed to see to the heart of a situation – and, crucially – were able to act on that intuition to a certain blend of stylish triumph.

Throughout the sixties McQueen came to exemplify the complex and contradictory vision of manhood than many men share: one where the dark and the light co-exist and complement each other. An essence of the characters he played – from the steely PI in Bullitt to the American GT usurper in Le Mans and everything in between, shone through to his daily life.

“Racing is life. Everything else is just waiting…” When McQueen spoke those words in the trailer of Le Mans, you could tell the man really meant it, and similarly, when he was quoted by a journalist as saying “I live for myself, I don’t answer to anyone” there was a self-evident truth in the utterence.

From today’s perspective, such uncompromising candor coming from a major Hollywood star is hard to envisage.

Taking this reality to heart, it’s hardly surprising that the fashion industry has taken great note of the outfits he casually wore and have sold his image back to us time and again. Take a close look at these pics and ask yourself if you’ve never wanted to step into Steve McQueen’s shoes.

Anyone who has ever dreamt of the freedom glimpsed behind the wheel at speed can recognise the reality that lay beneath this apparently styled surface.

Images via Life Archive & Luther Blissett